We usually discuss pitchers individually in this space, but let’s try a different approach this week, examining how the defense behind a pitcher can make or break his performance. We’re going to take a look at the top five defenses from last year as measured by Defensive Efficiency, and see if anything has changed for them that will make their pitchers either more or less desirable in 2009.
The Boston Red Sox were the fifth-best team in Defensive Efficiency last year, with 69.9 percent of balls in play converted into outs. They were able to do this despite having Manny Ramirez in left field for half of the season, and both Julio Lugo (one of the worst defensive shortstops in the majors last year by both advanced and traditional defensive metrics) and Jed Lowrie (-4 FRAA at shortstop in 49 games) in the infield. They fell from the number two spot in 2007, though the difference in converted outs was just 0.5 percent.
With Manny Ramirez now gone, they’ll have league-average defender Jason Bay in left field in 2009. Losing Coco Crisp, one of the better defensive center fielders around, is a blow, but with Jacoby Ellsbury sticking in center-he had +18 FRAA across all three outfield spots last year, and is capable of being better in center than Crisp-the Sox shouldn’t lose anything with the leather there. Those are the only major changes to the roster, though if J.D. Drew were to go down with an injury, they lack a replacement with the same defensive chops as Ellsbury or Crisp to replace him.
Overall, the Sox look like they have a potential top five defense yet again, and many of their already draft-worthy pitchers should receive the same help they’ve had the past two seasons. It’s also great news for someone with Brad Penny‘s ground-ball tendencies-leaving pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium for Fenway and the AL East is not always the best thing for your numbers.
The Oakland Athletics don’t hit very well, and after trading away most of their quality starters for prospects, a great defense will be a necessity if they hope to succeed in the AL West. Justin Duchscherer posted an ERA of 2.54 (with an FIP of 3.69), with help from the fourth-best team in Defensive Efficiency resulting in a .240 batting average on balls in play. As a pitcher’s park with plenty of foul territory, McAfee Coliseum reduces BABIP, and a great defense is one way to take advantage of your home field, and a way to improve your pitching staff without actually having to go out and acquire better pitchers. The question is whether or not the A’s will be able to pull off that trick again on a team with even fewer known quantities in the rotation.
Jack Hannahan was an above-average third baseman last season (+6 FRAA), tied with Mike Lowell for best third baseman in John Dewan’s Revised Zone Rating, and making far more plays out of the zone than Lowell did (43 to 28). Eric Chavez is great with the glove there as well, but if he can’t continue to perform, the A’s may actually be downgrading at the position. Jack Cust is not a great defender, but the Jason Giambi signing has bumped him from DH to right field on the Athletics depth chart. Though they were unable to find anyone to play right field who could hit consistently last year, the group of Emil Brown, Travis Buck, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ryan Sweeney did manage to combine for +13 FRAA at the position, a number that Cust will be hard-pressed to match. Finally, adding Matt Holliday to the mix should improve things in left field; he was very good at the position in a park that’s difficult to defend.
Losing any of last year’s outfield defense may be a problem for the young pitching staff, but the Athletics will still field an overall quality defensive team. I’m a little more wary about their starters now than I was with last year’s squad, so be careful not to over-draft in case the defense can’t carry them to the same degree that it did in ’08.
The Toronto Blue Jays finished third with 70.4 percent of balls in play converted into outs, and their defense was the main reason that any of their pitchers not named Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett saw success. They have not made any major changes heading into 2009, and we can expect the same kind of defensive performance going forward. The most significant change is Adam Lind as the starting left fielder; the Jays had five players appear in at least 11.1 Adjusted Games in left in 2008, with Lind leading the charge at 66.1. Though he did not log enough playing time to qualify for Dewan’s RZR, Lind’s .889 mark would be around the league average, so he won’t hurt the Blue Jays out there.
With the spate of injuries and the loss of A.J. Burnett, the problem for the Jays is not their defense, but rather the pitchers that they’re sending to the hill. That’s a topic for another column though; just know that their defense is good enough for them to have their third straight year in the top five in Defensive Efficiency, and fifth straight in the top 10.
The Chicago Cubs finished second with 70.5 percent of balls in play converted into outs, and their defense remains largely the same as it was in 2008. The most significant loss may be that of Mark DeRosa, who despite lacking a single set position was a quality defensive player all across the diamond. Aaron Miles, who has never been known for his glove, is the new starting second baseman; he’ll be a downgrade considering the excellent job that Eric Patterson, Mike Fontenot, and DeRosa did there last year (a combined FRAA of +14).
Signing Milton Bradley (possibly this afternoon) would downgrade things a bit more, as current right fielder Kosuke Fukudome finished third in Dewan’s RZR. He may be better off in center than last year’s collection (Jim Edmonds, Felix Pie, Reed Johnson), though it’s hard to tell from his short playing time there in 2008. Overall they’re still a club capable of a top ten finish, if not better. They have four quality starters, and their defense should be a boon that makes them look even better than they are.
The Tampa Bay Rays finished well out in front with 71 percent of balls in play converted into outs. Things are looking up again this year, with Evan Longoria slated to play third base for the full season-he finished fourth in Dewan’s RZR-and Matt Joyce taking over in right field. He’s at least as good as Gabe Gross with the glove, and as a better potential stick, should help the pitchers more than the guy he’s replacing.
Of interest is that Jason Bartlett-the player brought onboard last winter who was expected to be a defensive keystone-had a pedestrian defensive season, despite his reputation and previous years of data that indicated he would be better than he was. John Dewan’s other defensive number, Plus/Minus, had Bartlett at -1 in 2008 after seasons of +13 and +18 in 2006-2007. That’s a massive and sudden degradation, made even stranger since Bartlett was just as effective going to his right both years (+11); it was when going to his left (a drop from +4 to -11) that his defense became a problem for him in 2008. If Bartlett continues as merely average, the Rays will still be exceptional defensively, but if he can rebound, they’ll be even better.
The Rays went from having the worst Defensive Efficiency in the modern game in ’07 to taking the league lead in 2008. It was no surprise that their win total shot upward with it, and as the young lineup’s hitting ability catches up, they should only do better. That’s good news for a pitching staff that is already one of the best in the majors, both in real baseball and in the fantasy kind.